Jodie Ginsberg: The question of hate speech. The CEO of Index on Censorship spoke at the 30th anniversary of the Rafto Forum.
Ladies and gentlemen, Rafto laureates. It is my pleasure to be asked to speak to you today on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Rafto Foundation.
I represent Index on Censorship, an organization that was born, much like Rafto, to help give voice and support to dissidents behind the Iron Curtain but whose mission, like Rafto’s, quickly spread much wider. Index is a freedom of expression organization that campaigns against censorship globally and promotes the value of free expression.
Today I will talk about what I think is the hardest of all issues for free speech activists: the question of hate speech. And the question of whether it is possible to balance a belief in true freedom of expression for all with the recognition that, in many instances, hateful speech is used in such a way that can suppress the voices of minority and oppress groups.
What I want to offer today is a provocation. I want to argue that it is only by allowing free speech – that is allowing all forms of speech, including those espousing hateful views – that we can ultimately protect minority and oppressed groups. That the answer to hateful speech is not more bans or ever widening laws or definitions of hate, but finding mechanisms that better allow the speech of all groups to flow.
If the market for free ideas and the free exchange of ideas and opinions does not yet work perfectly, the answer is not to ban people from having a voice
I want to start by going back to basics and asking the question, why is free speech important? For me, and for Index, freedom of speech is the most important freedom because it is the freedom on which all others rest. If one cannot express freely one’s desires, one’s political or religious views, how can we be truly free? Without free speech, how can one speak out against the oppressor. Without free speech, the oppressed and marginalized are forced to suffer in silence.
John Stuart Mill wrote: “It is on the freedom of opinion and the freedom of expression of opinion, that the well-being of mankind depends” but I think Shahzad Ahmad, the 2014 winner of Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards said it better: “Freedom of expression. To me this is the ultimate freedom: it means the freedom to live, to think, to love, to be loved, to be secure, to be happy.”
Freedom of speech is enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, the First Amendment. It became a sort of mantra in the wake of the killings last year at French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. You would think this was a freedom and a value on which we could all agree. And yet. And yet. The question of where we draw the line on free speech drives a wedge through our apparent agreement that free speech is a universal good with parameters on which we can all agree. And it is this ‘I am in favour of free speech BUT’ question that I want to address today.